The Buffalo Bills played their first 2011 regular season home game with a thrilling win over the Oakland Raiders. Ryan Fitzpatrick's touchdown pass to David Nelson capped Buffalo's win, as Buffalo scored on all five second half possessions. The "good" and the "bad" can nearly be broken down by half.
Slow Offensive Start: The sure-fire way to keep a power running team off its game is to get an early lead. Buffalo did just the opposite. The Bills shot themselves in the foot with dropped passes, inaccurate throws, and an untimely illegal block by Donald Jones. This is nothing new for the Bills. Last season, the offense started slow, most noticeably against Cincinnati. Buffalo has to reverse this trend. Tom Brady and the Patriots will ruthlessly and effectively hang 40 points on Buffalo before halftime if the Bills repeat this first-half performance next week.
Leodis McKelvin: McKelvin has endured a lot of vitriol from many Bills fans, some of which is undeserved. He does, however, have to pick up his play, particularly in defending the deep ball. Raiders receiver Denarius Moore fought McKelvin for jump balls at least twice, winning each time despite being only an inch or two taller than McKelvin. The corner was in position, but Moore was quicker to the ball. McKelvin was drafted as a Tampa 2 corner. He plays noticeably better when the ball is in front of him. McKelvin has improved his positioning, but needs to play the deep ball much better so as not to be targeted by future opponents.
Pass Rush: Buffalo did get some pressure on Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell. It wasn't the type of pressure that is needed to stop or contain a passing game. Campbell had time to throw when he needed it. Chris Kelsay and Kyle Williams got their usual effort pressure, for sure, but no Bills defender was beating his blocker off the line of scrimmage and getting into Campbell's face with regularity. Aside from Williams, maybe Marcell Dareus in the future, and potentially Shawne Merriman, Buffalo doesn't have a front seven loaded with players that can consistently beat blocks and pressure the quarterback. Until Dareus develops and/or Merriman begins to play to form, this will be an issue for the Bills.
The Offensive Line: I won't dig in too deep. That's Ron's specialty. (Ed. Note: Ron's specialty will publish at 11:30AM.) It would be remiss not to point out that Buffalo ran for 217 yards. Fred Jackson normally needs to cut back and slip tacklers to turn a short gain into a four or five yard run. On Sunday, there were runs where Jackson wasn't touched until he reached the second level, and some beyond. C.J. Spiller ran for 63 yards on four carries. Part of that is Spiller learning to be patient. Part of that is Spiller having space given to him to be patient. Most importantly, the Raiders couldn't get to Fitzpatrick most of the day. In the second half, it didn't matter if the Raiders blitzed or not. Fitzpatrick carved them up either way. Considering that the Raiders defensive line came into the game highly touted, the supposed "heart and soul" of the team, and off a great performance versus Denver, this is a tremendous accomplishment for guys up front.
Run Defense: The Raiders did run for 131 yards, making this somewhat hard to put into the "good" category. Consider it in terms of how Buffalo contained Oakland's power run game. If you take into account just the runs by the backs, the picture is a bit different. Raiders running backs rushed 26 times for 103 yards, for a 3.9 yards-per-carry average. The Raiders were never forced to abandon the running game until after Nelson's touchdown catch. To limit Darren McFadden and company to that type of yardage through an entire game is proof that Buffalo can slow down opposing running games. They've done it on the edge versus the Chiefs, and now up the middle against the Raiders.
Second Half Offense: Put up the poll for the coach who makes the best second half adjustments. I vote for Chan Gailey. Buffalo is benefiting from a head coach that knows offense. Buffalo's offense is diverse, and Gailey knows just what to dial up to take advantage of the defense. Add a cerebral but gutsy Fitzpatrick, who knows where to go with the football, and you've got a good mix. Gailey started the second half in more conventional sets with the intent to pound Jackson and mix in Spiller. Once they gouged the Raiders enough on the ground, Gailey went back spread to take advantage of a defense gearing to stop the run. The final play to Nelson was more than just the Raiders missing an assignment. Nelson ran an underneath route to the side Spiller was flaring out to. Aware of Spiller's speed, the defense focused on him, leaving Nelson alone in the end zone. Great play from a great play caller, and great execution by a smart quarterback.
The team started 4-0 in 2008 only to be dashed by an Adrian Wilson hit and a murder's row of AFC East games mid-schedule. Drew Bledsoe led teams that started fast only to be stopped late in the season. For those not familiar with the Bills, 2-0 seems a decade in the making. It isn't. We've been here before.
Now the young Bills face the dragons they've been tormented by for years: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots. This is a different Buffalo team though. The Bills are an unheralded group of players, many undrafted or cut by other teams. They play as a team with a sense of purpose. This trait used to belong exclusively to the Patriots in this matchup. Now, Buffalo is in many ways more like the Patriots from a decade ago than the current Patriots are.
Buffalo has improved its ability to stop the run, tackles better, blocks better, and makes better decisions than any Bills team from the past five years. They are also mentally much tougher. All of this has been on display for two weeks. Many Bills are simply doing their job, whatever it may be, and they are doing it with conviction and passion.
To be sure, if Buffalo loses on Sunday, this won't end the season for the Bills. It could be a coming-of-age type of game. The Bills that end the losing streak to the Pats will gain the sense of confidence that only comes from slaying Goliath. Buffalo has that chance on Sunday, when they host the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25 at 1 PM.